Keeps the Doors Open

Being at the Madrid Conference of Parties (COP25), which I can colloquially call the UN Climate Conference, has been such a surprising experience.

It has been at once uplifting and demoralizing, energizing and deflating, heartening and alarming. It has been a huge wake up call for me personally and how I think about my climate resilience work within my professional life. Leaving behind a rather myopic perspective of resilience planning in Minnesota has been healthy and necessary. This global perspective has been instrumental in understanding how work in Minnesota nests within global efforts, how emissions in Minnesota may impact the Global South or Antarctica, how we are all subject to climate change impacts, though many of us will be more insulated from these impacts based on our country of residence, our socio-economic status, and the systematic privileges afforded to us.

Early in the week, I was firstly impressed with the conference edifice – the layout, the sessions, the press conferences, the free coffee at the Germany pavilion, the interplay of diplomacy and civil society, the will and expertise of attendees, and the general consensus around action. As the week wore on, I became more aware of a more opaque side to the conference.

While I have been impressed with the apparent exchange of ideas and even access to high-level government officials, it has started to feel a bit like window dressing as the week wore on. For example, I can walk right up to the German Minister of the Environment after a panel discussion. I can ask her more about Germany’s work, or I can even encourage her to do more. The U.S. civil society attendees, such as myself (a person with a ‘yellow badge’), can meet with the negotiators or the negotiators’ staff, at the very least, to press issues and to make a case for certain provisions within refined agreements. This was and is surprising to me – this apparent access to and exchange between the decision-makers and the advocates. At first it feels like the educational sessions and press conferences function to push negotiators and challenge them to go further faster, but as the week has worn on, it started to feel a little hollow as civil society tries to push negotiators to act on climate.

On Wednesday, as negotiations were stalling, the ‘yellow badges’ were rightly impatient and frustrated that their voices and their concerns were not being heard.

A peaceful protest started, which I’m told has never happened at the COP, and this was swiftly shut down, with more than 300 attendees ejected from the conference. On Thursday, the U.N. restored access for most of those ejected, but it sent a message that it would only tolerate certain forms of remonstration.

Now, on the final day of the conference, as negotiations on certain provisions of the Paris Agreement enter the home stretch, I am hearing from the Island states, from the developing countries, from indigenous and frontline communities that they are not part of the conversation.

These stakeholders feel left behind because they are experiencing outsized impacts from climate change right now, and they do not have the finances or ability to adapt to these impacts. They are concerned that the creation of carbon markets and finance mechanisms, for instance, will commoditize their forests and homelands without consideration of the impacts on their cultures and ways of life. They are also aggrieved that damage and loss provisions in the agreements (paying to support damage from currently occurring climate impacts) only consist of broad statements of purpose, with no financial instruments put in place to assist developing countries and frontline communities.

The bravery and strong voices of these groups represented here are undeniable. They have formed strong coalitions with the global climate youth movement which has helped to accelerate considerations of climate justice at the negotiations (think Greta Thunberg refusing to speak at press conferences so that the cameras would train on scientists or indigenous youth). However, it feels as though the organizational structures of the U.N. do not and have not allowed for these issues to percolate into the negotiations themselves.

One participant for the Global Forest Coalition stated, “We are called ‘Observers’ [those of us with yellow badges], but they don’t let us actually observe the closed-door negotiations. We have to go off of rumors.”

My impression from this COP25 is that it has lacked sufficient ambition to really integrate aggressive and co-creative measures into the agreements.

It seems that the organizational inertia of the U.N. itself belies its aims and objectives. In 2020, in Glasgow at COP26, I think we will see something different from the ‘yellow badges’ or ‘Observers.’ To equitably achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, everyone will need to be at the table, in an authentic way. The doors will need to be opened to a wider participatory process, and the doors will need to stay open until an agreement is reached that can translate to climate justice at the street and forest levels.

The most inspiring thing about being here are the voices of the youth, scientific community, indigenous groups, frontline communities, and small Island States. These voices are only growing more impatient, courageous, articulate, and powerful. I will be bringing back a new perspective to my Minnesota work.

Climate change is borderless; it doesn’t respect trade agreements or language and culture. It is now a part of all our lives.

To deal with this issue, we have a huge opportunity to allow climate change to erase our borders, difference, and status; bringing the world together around this issue presents the greatest opportunity of our lives.

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